They still look the team to beat in Europe, but how Saracens here flirted with the indignity of defeat themselves – and in their own backyard. The champions were forced to defend for two minutes at the end with their lead whittled down to two, but they held out for their 20th consecutive victory in Europe.
The Ospreys came east in the midst of a desperate season of defeat after defeat, but they played as men inspired. Dan Biggar kicked six from six, their defence was heroic at times, Tom Habberfield’s cover tackling extraordinary, and they played with a wit that was their hallmark not all that long ago. They were well worth the two bonus points they take away to keep their campaign just about alive.
“We’ll never accept mediocrity,” said Alun Wyn Jones, their captain, “but we acquitted ourselves like a team that hasn’t lost as many games as we have lately. We deserve some pride about the performance. Not many teams come here and pick up two points.”
But, ultimately, Saracens march on, another win, another bonus point bagged. There was never any serious expectation that they might lose this, but it’s always difficult to follow the sort of act they put on last week in Northampton. So immaculate a display was it that the bookies had given Northampton a 27-point headstart – and that for a side with four Lions in its starting line-up.
Mind you, by kick-off that count had been reduced to two after Ospreys’ flankers, Dan Lydiate and Justin Tipuric, pulled out, the latter during the warm-up. Sam Cross, a GB silver medallist at the last Olympics, was whistled up for bench duty after Lydiate’s withdrawal, then thrown in for his first-team debut after Tipuric’s. Ospreys were forced to field a third prop as his replacement on the bench. That was the mess they were in at the start. By the end, Cross was filling in on the wing, where he scored their bonus-point try two minutes from time.
Not that the opening minutes gave much notice of what was to follow. Saracens had their first try inside 10 minutes. Indeed, we feared for Ospreys at that point, so easily was their defence undone by a simple miss pass straight from an attacking scrum, Chris Wyles strolling in at the end of it. But two minutes later the first kink in the space-time continuum appeared – Saracens conceded a try straight from first phase themselves. Cory Allen came in from the blindside and offloaded to Dan Evans who streaked over for his first. Within 10 minutes again he had his second, after multiple phases, before Biggar’s penalty stretched the visitors’ lead to 10.
Barnet was twitching, but in the 10 minutes to half-time, Saracens attained something like the coherence we have come to expect. Wyles was released down the left to trigger one siege, during which Ospreys were caught offside and, on the stroke of half-time, Liam Williams’s chip ahead set up another. Vunipola offloaded to Schalk Brits, who danced with typical facility to the line. Farrell’s conversion drew Saracens level.
The assumption was that normal service would be resumed in the second half, but it was Ospreys who retook the lead – and Saracens were lucky it was by only three. Evans spilled the ball with the line begging, but the hosts by then had encroached offside. There could be no arguments with the Ospreys’ latest lead.
Their fortunes were to turn, though, at the end of the third quarter, and it was their two-try hero who was to crack. Farrell broke to within five metres, and a few phases later Evans slapped down Nick Tompkins’ pass with the unmarked Williams outside him. Penalty try, yellow card – and trouble.
While Evans was away, Saracens scored their fourth, Tompkins breaking and offloading brilliantly to Willliams, who would not be denied this time. A bonus point by the hour mark – maybe this was normal service after all.
If a nine-point lead inclined Saracens to relax, Ospreys were of a mind to capitalise, which they did with the try of the match.
They ran the ball from out of their own 22, and when the ball came left, Sam Davies broke to release Owen Watkin on the inside for a powerful, pacey gallop to the posts.
Their lead down to two, Saracens responded with try No5, finished by the excellent Tompkins. If only that had proved the end of the fireworks. With two minutes remaining, Cross, now on the wing, was worked into the corner by more wonderful work from Davies.
The Ospreys, alas, could not threaten the line again in the seconds that remained, but they had done plenty of that already. Quite the match.